Turkish reforms delayed

March 28, 2003

The largest reform of Turkish higher education since a 1980 military coup has been put on hold. The architect of the reform package, education minister Erkan Mumcu, has, in a surprise move, been transferred to the ministry of culture.

The move, part of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's cabinet reshuffle, is being widely attributed to intense pressure from the country's powerful military.

The military is deeply suspicious of the religious roots of Mr Erdogan's AK party and has accused him and his party of seeking to undermine Turkey's secular state. But with war in neighbouring Iraq, the government does not want a political confrontation with the army over education.

Deposed minister Mr Mumcu had engaged in a war of words with the head of Yok, the higher education authority created by the generals after they seized power in 1980. He accused Yok of being undemocratic and a source of many of the problems in higher education.

When announcing his reforms Mr Mumcu said he was setting universities free.

His planned reforms included transferring power back to individual universities and disbanding Yok. The reforms won many plaudits both in and outside higher education.

Yok has sweeping centralised powers, including the selection of deans and senior faculty members, and the power to dismiss academic staff.

e army argued that Yok and its powers were vital to protecting the Turkish secular state.

For the past five years, Yok has enforced a zero-tolerance policy on the wearing of religious dress in universities, resulting in thousands of women students being barred from higher education.

Mr Mumcu's successor, Huseyin Celik, is considered far less controversial.

On taking office, Mr Celik refused to comment on whether he would introduce Mr Mumcu's reforms. Instead he called for greater funds for education.

Mr Celik said his first priority was to change sponsorship laws for universities to make it easier for the private sector to support higher education.

The controversial reform package that declared it would introduce democracy into higher education already seems to have been put on the backburner.

Mr Erdogan took office after he was elected earlier this month.

He had been banned from elected office but his AK party lifted the ban following a landslide general election victory in November.

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